A review of “Information or Inspiration? Japanese Aesthetics to Enjoy With Left Side and Right Side of the Brain” at the Suntory Museum of Art almost needs a spoiler alert. The exhibition includes many surprises that make it more than a showcase of Japanese glassware, lacquerware, enamel, ceramic and calligraphy works. It’s an immersive, thought-provoking experience.
Curated and installed by the design unit Nendo, the unusual display of 27 of the museum’s 15th- to 19th-century objects is an example of a growing number of refreshingly original approaches to exhibition presentation. There are two parallel viewing routes for the same exhibits: “Information,” a conventional display, complete with informative panels; and “Inspiration,” a sparsely annotated, visually abstract spectacle. Separated by a wall of curtains, the routes can only be followed independently, leaving visitors to choose which to take first or, if they prefer, which to skip completely.
It’s “Inspiration” that really delivers the design creativity for which Nendo is renowned. Specific decorative motifs, forms and colors of the works are spotlighted through the use of unexpected viewing angles, deliberate obscuration, inventive lighting and tactile installations. There’s even, at one point, olfactory stimulation. All this is displayed in a darkened setting that, like the lack of explanatory notes, piques the curiosity and sparks the imagination.
If the “Inspiration” route is chosen first, other surprises come later in “Information,” the brightly lit counterpath where visitors find themselves viewing the same objects, but from a perspective that reveals them in their entirety.
The ingenuity of “Information or Inspiration” is that there is no superior route; each one enhances the experience of the other. The descriptive panels in “Information,” for example, offer historical context, but also validate the significance of the details highlighted in “Inspiration.” Key motifs are explained, the complex artisanal techniques behind form and color are illustrated and artists’ intentions elucidated.
There are many other nuggets of historical and design information to be gleaned from the information panels. Japan’s Satsuma kiriko (cut glass), for example, is a relatively recent craft of Japan, inspired by European imports and introduced in 1851. The natural wear-and-tear markings of negoro (red and black layered lacquerware), it is revealed, are a detail that makes it particularly appealing to tea ceremony practitioners; and what appears to be a few mundane uniformly molded glass vessels, turn out to be individually hand-blown by exceptionally skilled artisans.
If you’re wondering exactly what the 27 objects chosen for the show are — that’s something purposely omitted from this review to benefit the “Inspiration”-first visitor. From experience, half the fun is the big reveal in “Information” later.
Midway through the exhibition is a special Nendo interactive installation, which involves using umbrellas made of polarizing filters to cast “shadows” revealing hidden images upon the floor. Illustrating the way a different perspective can change everything, it’s an apt metaphor for this innovative show.
“Information or Inspiration? Japanese Aesthetics to Enjoy With Left Side and Right Side of the Brain” at the Suntory Museum of Art runs until June 2; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.suntory.com/sma.